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Interference in academic matters extreme under NDA: Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen

New Delhi: The extent of government intervention in academic matters has become “extraordinarily common” and often “politically extreme” under the NDA regime, says Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

He, however, says this is not the first time that a government has interfered in academic matters with its own views as the previous UPA government’s record in non- interference was “far from impeccable”.

“But the extent of intervention has become extraordinarily common and often politically extreme under the present regime,” 81-year-old Sen writes in his new book “The Country of First Boys”, in which he tries to seek an understanding of India’s history and the demands of its future.

“And often enough, the persons chosen for heading institutions of national importance have been exceptionally dedicated to promoting Hindutva priorities,” he adds.

The 1998 Economics Nobel winner then cites the example of the newly-appointed head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, saying he “may not be known for research in history, but his Hindutva-oriented opinions are well-known”.

Similarly, the new head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Lokesh Chandra, has shared with us his view that Modi is, in fact, “a reincarnation of God”, he says.

Published by Oxford University Press, the book also has essays on justice, identity, deprivation, inequalities, gender politics, education, the media and the Nalanda University.

Sen alleges that the new government has been active in trying to impose its own views on many academic institutions, and Nalanda University is not the only such institution the intellectual independence of which has been under considerable threat in recent months.

On May 30, the government announced that former Foreign Minister of Singapore George Yeo will be the new Chancellor of the Nalanda University, over two months after Sen withdrew his candidature to the post for a second term, claiming the Narendra Modi government does not want him to continue.

According to Sen, it will remain “extremely important for the government to live up to our hope that Yeo will have the independence he would need to make Nalanda an academic success in line with its vision, rather than its going down the sectarian way the ICHR and the ICCR have gone”.

Sen says he decided to quit when it became clear to him that the conflict between the government and the Governing Board of Nalanda on the subject of my continuing as chancellor was proving to be a barrier to the urgent work of rebuilding Nalanda.

“…In view of the fact that I have freely spoken about my skepticism of Mr Modi’s qualifications to lead a secular country, I was not entirely surprised to encounter governmental hostility to my continuing as chancellor. If there was a personal element in the hostility (even though I have had good personal relations with many other BJP leaders), the bigger issue was that of the academic independence of Nalanda University, rather than having to be in conformity with the political priorities of the ruling party.”

Sen says the conflict between Nalanda and the government relates in particular to the importance of academic independence so that institutions of higher learning like Nalanda do not have to conform to the will and the whims of victorious politicians.

The essays in the collection were written over a decade and a half, and they deal with a diversity of subjects. The common thread, according to Sen, is that all these articles share an interest in India seen in a non-sectarian perspective, and reflect a concern with equity and justice.

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